Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Little Free Library War

Saturday mornings unsettle me. Especially when the weather’s good. There’s a lively farmers’ market just down the street from us, with a bluegrass band, homemade donuts and vegan tamales. It’s great, if you’re into that sort of thing.

But it means floods of the worst kind of foot traffic. Graying gardeners and aging hippies; Bernie-or-Bust types; millennial parents, tatted and pierced, shepherding toddlers with names like Arya — damn near every one of whom stops to check out my Little Free Library.

And after paying $18 for an heirloom tomato and a pair of zucchini, you can’t blame a person for grabbing a free book. Indeed, this kind of neighborly interaction was exactly what my wife Heidi was hoping for when she got me the library for Hanukkah. Heidi’s the sunny and optimistic type, yin to my cranky yang, which made her an easy mark for the Little Free Library Foundation and its stated mission of promoting “the love of reading and to build a sense of community.”

She and the kids did it up right, painting ours lilac to match the color of our Victorian house. The library makes a striking contrast with the verdant green that blankets our block in the spring. But idyllic as that sounds, when the marketeers, wagons in tow, stop to fiddle with the latch and peer inside, all I feel is dread.

Little Free Library originated in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, when Todd Bol built a wooden box with a glass door, modeled on a one-room schoolhouse, in honor of his mother’s career as an educator. He nailed the box to a post in his front yard and stuffed it with books. The idea spread and in 2012 Little Free Library incorporated as a non-profit. By January of 2016, there were at least 36,000 Little Free Libraries across the globe.

They seem particularly popular in our town, Oak Park, a progressive suburb just west of Chicago. We’re a bookish community with a thriving independent bookstore, a showpiece library and a proud literary heritage that includes Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jane Hamilton and Ernest Hemingway.

It’s easy to see why Heidi imagined a Little Free Library would be a great gift for me. I’ve always enjoyed checking out other people’s books. Partly this is a party survival strategy. My misanthropy is such that at social gatherings I like to take a respite from small talk to peruse people’s bookshelves and CD cases, which gives me an excuse to turn my back on literally everybody. Sadly Spotify and Kindle have eliminated most of these analog escape hatches. But I’m still genuinely interested in what other people read. So the idea of curating my own selection was immensely appealing. I’m a history teacher and I dabble as a children’s literature critic, so, if I’m being honest, I flatter myself on my taste in books.

Heidi is even more of a book snob than I am. She’s from the librophile equivalent of old money — her late, beloved father Bill was an antiquarian and her childhood home brims with 18th century atlases and first editions of U.S. Grant’s memoirs. So we both turned up our noses at the castoff books that came bundled and shrink-wrapped with our purchase (an oddly eclectic group which included “Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images” and a set of Disney princess-themed board books). As Heidi put it, in what proved to be a wildly optimistic sentiment, “We’re better than that.”

Since our book collection had long outgrown our shelf space, it was easy to find the first offerings for our library. Our bookshelves, end tables and nightstands were stacked with medium-brow novels, chapter books that our kids had outgrown and, my guilty pleasure, Nordic-noir fiction.

I quickly took to the daily ritual of inventorying our stock to see what had gone into circulation. It was fun to see what sorts of title moved and which got passed over. But as the stacks on the nightstand shrank, a realization dawned on me. We were gonna run out of books. The math was daunting. Even before the spring strolling season had begun, we were losing two to three books a day. With warmer weather and the farmers’ market ahead of us, we could expect to bleed a thousand books a year.

Little Free Library has a seductive marketing slogan that’s carved into the top of every unit: “Take a Book; Return a Book.” Such a simple equation. And such wishful thinking. Take? Oh, absolutely. People are, in fact, really good at that part. For example there was the young mom who lifted her toddler up to the box, watching uncritically as he scooped up “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie’s collection of criticism and essays. Which I’m sure he enjoyed.

When it comes to returning, people mean well. For example, I don’t doubt the sincerity of that young mom when she told her greedy little urchin, “We have to remember to come back soon and give them some books.” The problem is that, to borrow my favorite report card phrase, remembering, for most people, “remains an area of growth.” It’s not that I blame my (mooching) neighbors. Indeed, I, myself, seldom return books to the public library on time. And they fine you if you don’t. But since I don’t punish people (unless you count silent, withering judgment), I’ve got no leverage. The truth is laziness is just part of human nature. It’s what separates us from the beavers.

But the lesson was clear. I wasn’t running a library. Libraries are built around the idea of circulation. And circulation implies a circle. What I had, aside from the contributions of a few kind neighbors on my block, was a one-way street of literary handouts. So it wasn’t long before I concluded that if I was going to stay in business, I had to reduce the outgoing volume.

Luckily I had an ace in the hole.

by Dan Greenstone, Salon |  Read more:
Image: Jim Mone/AP